Deep Sixing Permission

How much time would you spend at the beach?

How much time do you spend at the beach?

a)    Five Minutes
b)   One Hour
c)    One Day

The question above was on a test my first grader took last week. She came home, saying that she would have picked “one hour” because she doesn’t like the beach, but that her teacher had “gone over this one a bunch because it was a hard one” and the correct answer is “one day.”

Let’s just skip over the ridiculousness of this question being on a test framed to gauge a child’s understanding of time (and the fact that the answer was coached).

There is no correct answer. It’s up to the individual answering the question.

Of all the e-mails that Steve and Black Irish Books receive each week, the most common e-mail includes life-changing questions. The writers want to change directions, to try something new. What should he or she do? Is it a good idea for him to quit his job? Should she go back to school? Will she succeed at some point even though she feels like a failure? Keep going or give it up?

Steve could share what he might do, but it isn’t what will necessarily work for someone else. That person writing to him might not like the beach as much as Steve, hence “five minutes” is a better answer than “one hour” or “one day.”

There’s also the permission piece to this. What these individuals really want is permission to move forward.

He wants to quit his job and go back to school, and wants someone to say “go for it” to him. She wants to bus tables to free up time to work on her art — and wants a stamp of approval from someone, validating her choice. They don’t want to take responsibility for steering their own course. Better to let someone else send them into uncharted waters.

I feel like a hypocrite typing these words because I do the same thing, whether it’s not being able to commit to a color of paint for a bedroom without first asking everyone I know, or bigger decisions, such as cutting loose a difficult client even though I like her work, or whether I should move my kids to a different school. What to do? “What would you do?” I’ve asked before, polling until I’ve received enough answers to validate my choice.”

So… From one person who struggles with getting that stamp of approval herself… Stop it. Stop asking for permission. Just make a decision.

Now, if your question is advice on nuts & bolts of writing or editing, rather than whether you should or shouldn’t make a change in your life… You’ve come to the right place. That’s doable. Shawn went above and beyond answering everything I think a writer could possibly ask about  Story via The Story Grid and both Steve and Shawn address the craft of writing on Wednesdays and every other Friday (and a few days in between). We’ve got an answer for that one. For the rest, though…

Make the decision and then do everything in your power to make sure the only outcome possible is that it turns out to be the “right” one (says the gal who still knows this is easier said than done…).

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Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on May 8, 2015 at 5:02 am

    Bravo for this insightful post Callie, and for outing yourself at the same time! I’ve been guilty of this myself, but less so as I get older. If one can get past the anxiety that sometimes pulls us back from the moment of decision, there is great satisfaction to be had for squaring one’s shoulders, taking the plunge and deciding we’re going to make whatever it is the “right” thing to do.

    P.S. What’s up with your child’s teacher? Yikes!

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:22 am


      Thanks for your comment. For the record, I like the teacher — and that she recognized there wasn’t a “right” answer, hence her helping the kids with the expected “correct” answer.

      I’m not a fan of the people who develop these tests, or the fact that teachers are put in the position of coaching students toward “correct” answers.

      At an early age, the students learn to make decisions based on what someone else advises. That sort of thing can stick for life if students experience it year after year…


      • Steven Pressfield on May 8, 2015 at 12:41 pm

        Great post, Callie. I didn’t know you were writing this, but thanks for saying what needed to be said.

        The one HUGE point that I would add is that the act of asking for permission is Resistance. Yes, it’s human. Yes, it’s understandable. But it is Resistance pure and simple.

        Thanks for this terrific post!

        • Jim Mondry on May 12, 2015 at 12:57 pm

          I love that point – asking for approval is resistance. It’s a way of letting fear dominate. If you feel the need to ask permission, it’s likly because there is risk and uncertainty and we all look for every way we can to eliminate risk and uncertainty.

  2. Dave Thompson on May 8, 2015 at 6:09 am

    Thanks, Callie, for posting this… although the example using standardized testing is quite alarming.

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot the last couple of months. I find myself in that position where my previous engagement ended and I’m no longer employed by a firm. I’m not charged with working for myself and the set of decisions that comes with the territory.

    I would LOVE for someone to tell me what to do. My expectation is that the only thing someone else can tell me is “go do something!” I don’t need permission to move forward with life. I might want that shifting of responsibility, but it doesn’t wok that way, does it? 😉

    Thanks for sharing this insight. It’s timely.

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Thanks, Dave!

  3. Maureen Anderson on May 8, 2015 at 6:23 am

    The story you opened your post with is heartbreaking, Callie!

    I once polled people about whether I should put the same beautiful texture that’s on our ceilings — and makes them look like clouds — on our walls, too.

    The texture artist (yep, that’s a job title) was due to arrive in minutes, and I still hadn’t decided. I went upstairs to the room he was going to start with and stood quietly in the center of it. I imagined the texture on the walls. A current of fear ran through me.

    “Good move!” everyone told me later, reassurance I didn’t happen to need anymore.

    The body doesn’t lie.

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:47 am

      Thanks, Maureen!

  4. Jeremy on May 8, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Callie, this may seem like an odd example of your excellent advice of “Stop asking for permission. Just make a decision.”

    My wife and I have a 10-month-old boy, our first, and we’ve struggled to figure out the best way to help him sleep. We asked every parent we knew what worked for them, and every answer was different. We tried all the options and none worked.

    We knew what we wanted to do the entire time–we were just looking for someone to tell us it was okay. When we stopped asking for permission to do it, and just did it, things got much better.

    I hope all of the folks who write you guys make the decision to follow their art. It’s what they want to do, otherwise they wouldn’t be asking.

    My copy of The Story Grid is on the way, and I can’t wait! Now, any chance Shawn is working on a book about how to craft a leak-proof diaper?

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:53 am


      M husband and I did that, too. Then, after finding what worked for our first child, we found it didn’t work for the second child. Correct for one was wrong for the other. It’s the same for art. What works for one project/person isn’t necessarily the answer for the next.The only thing I know for certain – whether with kids or art – is that it takes time, that we have to be in it for the long haul, and learn from our mistakes (and from our successes).

      Good luck with the leak-proofing…


  5. David Villalva on May 8, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Love this. I definitely find myself seeking answers or decisions from others. And friends call me asking for the same direction. I usually point them toward themselves to find the answers. Maybe I should do this for myself more often!

    Also, should receive The Story Grid any day. Looking forward to reading it the way of the hard copy.

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:53 am

      Thanks, David!

  6. Lea Page on May 8, 2015 at 7:15 am

    I get what you are saying, Callie, about taking responsibility for one’s choices, but here is an interesting thing: I recently interviewed Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice, among others. Research shows that we humans are really bad at projecting the likely outcomes of our choices. Making choices is the hardest thing we do as humans and it turns out that we SUCK at it, as a general rule. Schwartz talks about how polling peers is actually a really good way of determining the outcome of a decision– because often–not always–what worked for others will work for us. Not always. But choosing what most other people don’t/are too afraid to choose takes courage, and hearing, over and over and over, that some others have made similar choices can instill confidence.

    I know. It is a fine line.

    If you are interested in the interview, you can find it at my website,

    • Joel D Canfield on May 8, 2015 at 8:13 am

      Lea, I also use friend-poll as a tool for a different purpose. I ask, then listen to myself, my thoughts, my response.

      Sometimes I’m not sure what I think until I hear myself disagreeing with a trusted friend.

      Polling for information, for research? Sure.

      Asking permission? For art?

      I think not.

      • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:56 am

        Well said, Joel. C

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:56 am


      Do you think there’s a difference in polling to learn and polling for permission?

      I often ask others how they’ve done something/how they’ve handled a situation, so I can learn from them, but when I ask them what I should do, the decision I should make… For the latter, “you’re fishing” always comes to mind. It’s fishing for permission.

      Same? Different?


      • Aviah Laor on May 9, 2015 at 1:04 am

        Problem that when faced with choices, resistance never puts a note on it’s own. It can be awfully smart smuggling in some very nice looking choices. So whether we like it or not, I think we do need permissions and external support. Many times there is an inherent weakness to choose the things that are better for yourself, by yourself. If you are lucky, reality will bite. Otherwise, to me, the key is not whether to ask for permissions, but rather finding the correct place to look for them.

      • Lea Page on May 23, 2015 at 6:52 am

        Hi Callie,

        Oh, yes, I definitely think that polling for information is different than asking for permission. And I understand the role of resistance. I would say that there is also an area in the middle that I would call “encouragement.’ The key piece of that word is “courage” and the “en” part means that it comes from outside and one takes it inside. Sometimes we need that. No one can take the step across the line of Resistance for us, but I would argue, that, yes, for some people, they need encouragement to cross it. I stepped across when I was 48. I had plenty of discouragement before that, actually, and it took me that long– partly to find people who encouraged me. I had to overcome my fear and resistance, but it sure as heck helped that I had people saying “go for it.” You could say that if I hadn’t waited for that, I might have started writing sooner. True, possibly. But you could say, equally, that if I hadn’t had the encouragement, I might never have begun. I would say, if I had to be nailed down on it, that I think the real question might be: who are the right people to seek for encouragement–and sometimes even permission at times.

        • Lea Page on May 23, 2015 at 6:54 am

          And now that I have read down to see what Aviah wrote, I could have said, “What he said!”

          • Lea Page on May 23, 2015 at 7:11 am

            And to put my money where my mouth is on this: my book, Parenting in the Here and Now, was just released. In it, I provide parents with an overarching approach to challenges that is remarkably similar to what Steve says in his War of Art (which I read after I wrote the book). I write about frustration, guilt and mostly FEAR, which is the bottom line of all parenting struggles. But I don’t think that it is enough to point this out to parents. I do my best to put myself there with them on their path, to say, “I am with you. We have all been there.” Not that I can make their choices, but I will walk with them as a companion. That is encouragement. And on some level, that is also permission. And I would say that raising children is one of the high arts that we humans practice.

          • Lea Page on May 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

            And to put my money where my mouth is, my first book, Parenting in the Here and Now, was just released by Floris Books. I provide parents with an overarching approach to parenting challenges, one that addresses the frustration, guilt and FEAR, which is lurking behind a lot of it. It is remarkably similar to The War of Art, actually (which I read after writing my manuscript). But it is not enough to point things out to parents. I make every effort to put myself there on the page with them, to be a companion who is walking the path by their side. I am saying, “We have all been there. You have to take those steps, but I am with you.” That is encouragement, and, on some level, that is also permission. I love irony, and I believe that the biggest irony here is that The War of Art IS one big permission slip.

          • Lea Page on May 23, 2015 at 7:32 am

            sorry for the double post, I thought the first one was lost. Apologies.

  7. sibella giorello on May 8, 2015 at 7:26 am

    Right on, Callie. And your daughter’s experience shows just how early this permission-asking begins. Seems like from childhood forward, we’re always asking, “What’s the right answer?”

    But as creatives and entrepreneurs, we need to give ourselves permission. ESPECIALLY permission to fail.

    That’s where authentic living begins.

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:56 am

      Thanks, Sibella!

  8. BING on May 8, 2015 at 8:17 am

    What jumped out for me is ‘the permission to move forward’ is what a lot of us are looking for or at least for me it is a big one. I just finished an art piece that I really like, I am now looking high and low for permission to make more art. I have the new idea’s. That is why I like hanging around this blog site, you all help me to get back and DO the work. I thank all of you.
    – BING

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 8:59 am

      Thanks, Bing! I’m better for having viewed some of your creations! Looking forward to see what you do next. C

  9. Keith Harris on May 8, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Your description of your daughter’s test question is both funny and disheartening. This sort of thing goes beyond today’s educational worldview. It’s how the wider society is evolving: questions about how best to live are presumed to come with forced-choice or true-false answers!

    Sure, there are times when counselors are useful (e.g., attorneys), when we need advice from those with practical expertise in matters where a best course of action really can be determined.

    But when it comes to life choices, there are no definitive answers that apply to all. (Thank goodness.) A meaningful life is something of an adventure: it doesn’t follow a predefined path.

    Experienced therapists know this and keep their client’s focus on self-exploration, authenticity and risk-taking, rather than on having the therapist take responsibility for the client’s choices.

    It seems to me that the best writing, whether fiction and non-fiction, does the same.

    • Callie Oettinger on May 8, 2015 at 9:08 am


      Thanks for your comment. A good one.

      On life choices… My dad used to tell his three daughters that we didn’t come with instruction manuals. That line came often when we were teens and arguing with him. Now that I’m almost the age he was then, I look back and “get it.”

      Whether it is kids or business or anything else related to our life… There’s no one instruction manual that will work for everyone. We’re all going through the same thing, trying to figure out what’s right for us.

      I just wish I was one of those with the ability to coordinate good hair with stressful days. Makes it easier to hide the reality… 😉


  10. Sonja on May 8, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Oh, I loved this! Thank you for your honesty, Callie.

    We know what we need to do, but why do we seek so much permission? In life, when I’ve made choices by my own instinct, things have generally worked out or sometimes they haven’t. But when they haven’t, it’s been easier to take a hit when it’s been my bad choice, then because of someone else’s “advice.” (Which happens often).

    As Steve so eloquently said in a previous post, no one really knows what you go through, no matter how touching their sentiment. We have to live with the fallout of not going for it.

    As always, thank you.

  11. valerie on May 8, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I loved this. I just gave myself permission to do nothing important today because it’s too cold outside to go horseback riding. I felt incredibly guilty for not toughing it out – but 60F is muscle-tensing weather for me. I had turned to the I Ching online and asked if I should go and ride. It said “Cultivating the proper disciplines and the proper degree of discipline are the concerns of this hexagram. By limiting options, you may give more attention to priorities.
    One who is all over the map is no less lost than one without a map.
    Avoid asceticism, however.
    Deprivation is not wise discipline.
    The key here is regulation, not restriction.

    I choose regulation and gentleness, whether in my writing and how I pace myself, in my profession and how many hours I give it each week and in my self-care balanced with caring for others, including my sweet horse who is perfectly content in pasture, without me.

    Grateful here.

  12. Christine on May 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

    As a busy working mom, art seems like a selfish pastime. I’m not going to get permission from my non-artsy hubbie. So I have to re-read Steven’s War of Art: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got .”
    I am of course not acting on this advice; instead, I confine my talent to creative birthday cakes.

  13. Faith Watson on May 8, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    omg, this in the year I launched! My pet project is really resonating with folks, though, because they do want permission to move forward, or change their minds, or show their stuff, or take a break… and the truth is they have to take ownership of all their lifestyle decisions, and for who they are.

    It is, perhaps, the worst kind of Resistance, to feel unworthy… or to feel unable to choose. We oppress ourselves!?

    So, fine, permission granted I say, if it makes one feel better about owning their own truth. We tend to think the big reveal will be so awful and ugly but so often that’s just a story we made up in our heads and then we started to believe it.

    Because we’re creative like that.

  14. Jeff on May 9, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Nice. Great post, Callie.

    As an advertising consultant, I see this same thing fairly frequently. Between an A+ plan based on what I’d do if I owned the company and a B plan that represents what the client really wants to do, the B plan is always the right one. And more often than not, the A+ plan is what the client wants to do, and sort of knew he (or she) should do, but he/she just felt better doing it by having their intuition confirmed. My saying it was the right thing to do gave them permission to pursue it.

    I love how Seth Godin says this in terms of “pick yourself.” Give yourself permision and go do it rather than waiting on someone else to pick you/give you permission.

    Now we all just need to go do that. As you say, it’s easier said than done : )

  15. Adam Thomas on May 9, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    I think the best way to think about these things is that all change is good, so pick a road and walk down it. Even if it is wrong – nothing in life really is irreversible short of death & time.

    To new experiences and making decisions :-).

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